Exploitation Retrospect | The Journal of Junk Culture and Fringe Media

What a Monster! A Spin Through Hammer's Frankenstein Cycle
by Dan Taylor

Doctor ShockAs a kid growing up in the 1970s, many Saturday afternoons were spent frittered away in front of the tube digging on the latest offerings from that groovy ghoul Doctor Shock. His 'Creature Double Feature' was a pivotal, damaging influence on my young brain, just waiting to infect me with its delightful blend of gallows humor and D-grade schlock.

For whatever reason, my adolescent psyche had some sort of Frankenstein flick aversion. Not all Frankenstein flicks mind you. I'd watched countless encounters with the Universal variety of the blockheaded monster through the years, especially its meetings with Abbott and Costello.

Buy Horror of Dracula at Amazon and Support ERBut when I'd scan the weekly listings and spot one of the entries from the Hammer Films cycle of Frankenstein flicks, I'd mentally begin making plans for those couple hours. Why? Who knows? I loved the Hammer cycle of Dracula flicks, eating up every encounter between Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Living for that moment in HORROR OF DRACULA when Van Helsing throws back the curtains, exposing the evil vampire to the deadly rays of the sun.

Perhaps I projected my boredom with the Universal cycle – a simmering contempt surely bred out of familiarity – that made me ask, "Why the hell would I want to watch another Frankenstein movie?"

With three decades of trash viewing under my belt, I had successfully avoided each and every one of the Hammer Frankenstein flicks like an episode of 'The Golden Girls.' Sure, I'd seen just about every frickin piece of Z-Grade straight-to-video trash that Full Moon Pictures could offer, but I hadn't seen anything more than the briefest clip of Peter Cushing as the bad doctor.

During a recent vacationI started reading Profoundly Disturbing, the latest book from drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs. Though a touch more scholarly than I was expecting from the man who brought the world Rhett Beaver and the "blood, beasts and breasts" drive-in rating system, the chapter on CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN – the first flick in the cycle and the movie that defined Hammer as a house of horror – made me think I might be missing something.

Thanks to the wonders of DVD I was able to sit down recently and groove on five of the seven flicks in the cycle: CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957), REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958), FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1967), FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969) and FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1974). I passed on EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1964) due to its unavailability on DVD (and the whisperings from some trusted sources that it pandered to Universal) and HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN (1970) because it doesn't star Cushing.

Buy Curse of Frankenstein at Amazon and Support ERCURSE – directed by Terence Fisher with a script by Jimmy Sangster – lays the groundwork for the series and immediately establishes it as something far, far different than the Universal flicks. Rendered in flashback, the flick tells how Baron Victor Frankenstein (Cushing) studies – and eventually surpasses – his mentor Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart). After reanimating a dog Victor's itching to build a man and bring him to life while Paul's not so sure this is how they should be spending their time. The arrival of a pre-arranged fiance (Hazel Court) tosses a monkey wrench in Victor's maid-banging activities and creates the necessary tension between Victor and Paul as well as a dull love triangle of sorts.

A body, hung as a warning to others, proves too tempting for Victor to refuse and pretty soon he's conspiring to find the perfect brain for his new creature (played with a gruesomely sympathetic air by Christopher Lee). Let's just say this... you don't want to be called "the greatest brain in Europe" when Frankenstein's around.

Though it has all the overdone cliches of the genre – the brain gets damaged during a fight, the reveal scene, the blind guy who can't see the hideous creature, the righteously pissed off monster – CURSE is wicked good fun elevated to new heights by Cushing's measured performance as the obsessed baron. Sangster's script gives him plenty of sinister lines and there's none of that raving lunacy so common in the Universal performances.

Buy Revenge of Frankenstein at Amazon and Support ERREVENGE – which reunites Cushing, Sangster and Fisher – picks up right where CURSE ends as the baron heads to the guillotine for his crimes against man and nature. But what's this? A nod, a wink and the blade falls, but on whom? Grave robbers disinter the baron, only to discover a priest – WITH NO HEAD! Yep, it's the old execution switcheroo, giving Dr. "Stein" the chance to relocate to Carlsbruck (a German town complete with Cockney accents) where he promptly sets up shop and becomes the most popular doc in town, not to mention a perpetual thorn in the side of the local medical community. But what's he up to with all those amputations in the clinic?

The young Dr. Hans Kleeve (Francis Matthews) recognizes Frankenstein and persuades him to let him "join the practice" so to speak. Pretty soon plans are put into motion to give Carl the Hunchback a new body, a development that highlights one of the things I like most about these Hammer flicks. While Universal kept finding new (sometimes dumber) ways to bring back the same damn monster, Hammer's cycle features a new creature matched up with a hideous new concept from Frankenstein for each flick.

Like the monkey transplant that turned out horribly, Carl's brain transplant ends up turning him into some kind of twisted cannibal freak and all hell breaks loose. Even without the internet it ain't long before the good doctor's true identity is revealed and Frankenstein needs to make tracks, leading to one of the most inspired – but confusing twists – in the series. Really, ya gotta see it for yourself, though the flick isn't as much fun as CURSE.

Buy Frankenstein Created Woman at Amazon and Support ERSkipping over the supposedly leaden EVIL it's time to get to FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN which opens with a cackling fool headed to the guillotine. His son Hans (not to be confused with Hans from REVENGE) emerges from the bushes just in time to see good ole Dad lose his head, which would normally send any youngster as far away as possible. Unless, of course, you're Hans who has stayed on in the same noweheresville town in the shadow of the head chopper that offed pops.

Seems that Hans (Robert Morris) and his bumbling employer (Thorley Walters) have a Frankencicle they need to revive. Yep, the good doctor has moved from brain transplants to experiments with cryogenic suspension and lifeforces, and is using himself as a guinea pig. Successfully brought back to life, Frankenstein orders Hans to procure some champagne from the local pub owner whose cute daughter Christina has a nice body but a hideously scarred faced.

A run-in with some boozy chaps eventually leads to the murder of Christina's father and Hans being accused of the crime. After a trial featuring lots of talk about him being just like dear old dad (See? I told you he should've relocated!) Hans gets his head chopped off and Christina throws herself off a cliff, providing just what the good doctor needs to try and trap the lifeforce. A blonde, beautiful, unscarred Christina – complete with a dash of Hans' soul and memories – is born, which isn't good news for the aforementioned boozy chaps or Christina. Bleak stuff indeed with the good doctor's ill-advised attempt at matchmaking blowing up royally.

Buy Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed at Amazon and Support ERWith the botched lifeforce experiment out of the way, it was time for the good doctor to return to his old tricks and the result is the superb FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (again directed by Fisher with a dark, humorless script by Bert Batt). A burglar is in the wrong place at the wrong time when a machete-wielding maniac comes home with his freshly-obtained head. Naturally, the maniac turns out to be Dr. Frankenstein, who needs to find new digs once now that his lab has been exposed.

Taking up residence in the boarding house run by Anna Spengler (the luscious Veronica Carlson), Frankenstein blackmails her and her foppish doctor boyfriend (Simon Ward) into tossing out the other residents and helping him set up shop. They plant the brain of a colleague into another body in order to gain the secrets held by the institutionalized pal, but the creature (brilliantly played by Freddie Jones) freaks at the sight of another man's body around his brain and attempts to reconcile with a wife who rejects him. Swearing revenge on Frankenstein, the creature ultimately engages him in a sinister game of cat and mouse in a burning house.

DESTROYED is the highlight of the series and one of the best flicks the horror genre has to offer. Cushing is totally on top of his game as Frankenstein, delivering a dark and sinister portrayal complete with decapitations, fights, plenty of slapping, a little rape, deviousness, lying, assault and murder. By this point in the series, Frankenstein IS the monster, a clever way of addressing a horror icon that often confuses viewers.

Buy Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell at Amazon and Support ERThe good doctor's swan song would be FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL, a Frankenstein-in-prison epic that predates the similar BEYOND RE-ANIMATOR by about 30 years. Thrown in an asylum for practicing "sorcery," doctor Simon Helder (Shane Briant) discovers that he's incarcerated with none other than his idol, Dr. Frankenstein, now going by the name of Dr. Carl Frank and wearing a ridiculous wig.

Though officially an inmate, Dr. Frank has full run of the asylum (thanks to a sinister relationship with the creepy asylum director) and access to the full range of crazy patients needed for his experiments. Helder discovers that Frankenstein and his lovely, mute assistant Sarah (Madeline Smith) have been working on a new creature complete with the body of an ape-like maniac (David Prowse who would later provide the body for Darth Vader in the STAR WARS flicks), the hands of a sculptor and the brain of a violin playing mathemetician.

You'd think this would all turn out well, but it doesn't. His hands rendered useless by the fire at the end of DESTROYED, Frankenstein presses Helder into service, paving the way for several gory (as gory as Hammer gets) operations and plenty of graphic closeups as well as veins held in teeth, gooey eyeballs and more. Filmed in 1972 but not released until 1974 the flick again featured Fisher behind the camera with a screenplay by Anthony Hinds (son of Hammer's co-founder). Unfortunately, the fine flick allows the good doctor to go out with a whimper instead of a bang, making this a fun and grisly low-budget entry in the series, though not on the level of the superb MUST BE DESTROYED.

Do yourself a favor and take this series of discs for a spin. You'll gain new appreciation for Cushing's work and Hammer's place in the annals of horrordom.

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